Thursday, April 17, 2003

White picket Fences: Dreams -- broken and fulfilled -- not just for Anglo homes

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When plays are in previews, in a sense they’re still under construction, but finished enough to let people take a tour and see how it goes. After some preview performances at Portland Stage — usually the Wednesday before opening night — the audience gets to weigh in, asking and answering questions about the play and its performance, to help the director better understand what more needs to be done.

Performing August Wilson’s FENCES, with its all-black cast, before a Maine audience is an act of faith in itself, and allowing people to talk to the director about it afterwards is courageous. FENCES is not a play about race per se, but more about, as the New York Times series was titled, how race is lived in America.

It’s a piece of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle about each decade in the 20th century, and looks at the life of a 1950s black man who was one of the best Negro League baseball players ever, but who was left behind as black baseball fans went to watch the slowly integrating major leagues. So Troy Maxson (Cedric Young) becomes a garbageman to provide for his wife and family.

But Troy and his family situation are more complicated than that. An ex-con with a wandering eye, Troy wants to be settled down, and fights for control of his family and the world immediately around him. A small victory comes when he asks his boss why the white men get to drive and the black men have to haul the garbage cans: Troy gets the driving job but finds it lonely. His family longs for his love and attention, but his mind is often elsewhere, searching for peace.

At the director’s talkback session after the play, about a dozen members of the all-white audience stuck around to talk to Ron OJ Parson, a friend of August Wilson, and whom Wilson specifically asked to direct this play in Portland. Also present was PSC artistic director Anita Stewart.

Parson asked about the general feeling people had of the play, and the audience members talked less about race than humanity. Parson himself likened the play to the movie Gangs of New York, which taught him that white people could be prejudiced against other whites, not just blacks.

Language and history also come into this play. Black-to-black vernacular, both in the 1950s and today, includes the word " nigger " used in the way whites — and blacks, too — might say " man " or " dude. " And though the audience remarked upon it, none of them could bring themselves to utter the word, even in an discussion of its artistic value. It remains a word that has political power and a racial charge many want to avoid.

Troy’s story illustrates the personal impacts of other major historical trends, though they may be ones white Maine teachers don’t touch in school — Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but the change destroyed the Negro League, where stars like Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron had honed their talents. Other Negro League standouts, like Troy in this play, were left behind and resentful. To the day he died, Troy kept a baseball bat outside and a batting-practice ball tied to a tree, to ease his tension and bring him back to his ball-playing days.

The audience talked with Parson and Stewart about various elements in the play, and how they identified with some of the emotions and some of the characters in Wilson’s script. " Theater to me is like a painting, " Parson said. " Everyone is going to see something different. "

But none of them remarked upon the one major feature of the set that even regular PSC fans rarely see: The back of the actual theater space is visible to the audience this time, bricks and all.

Written by August Wilson. Directed by Ron OJ Parson. With A.C. Smith, Cedric Young, Mimi Ayers, Clifton Williams, Charles Michael Moore, and Robert Lee Taylor. At Portland Stage Company through May 4. Call (207) 774-0465.


• Be sure to get a glimpse of some of Maine’s newest theater work at Portland Stage’s Little Festival of the Unexpected April 23 to 26, including work by John Cariani and Laura Shaine Cunningham, as well as Women and the Sea by Shelly Berc.

• The " best friend of the St. Lawrence, " Bob Lipps, has lived on Munjoy Hill all his life and his 50th birthday is April 25. The party starts at 7 p.m., and costs $10, which will be donated on Bob’s behalf.

Stacy Begin, managing director of the Children’s Theatre of Maine, has written Les Acadiens, based in part on her own Franco-American upbringing. It opens May 9 and explores the life of a 17-year-old boy in 1942 Waterville.

• Check out local theater geniuses Craig Bowden and J.P. Guimont and the excellent theater thoroughbreds at Mad Horse Theatre Company’s production of Suburban Motel, a comedy about four different events in the same seedy motel room, starting May 8 at Portland Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theater.

• Sharpen those pencils: Cocheco’s Michael Tobin is accepting original plays throughout 2003 for jurying and performance next March.

BlueSky Theater is a new nonprofit company formed to encourage Seacoast youth and adults to create theater together. Call Linda Finkle at (603) 926-0700.

• A tip o’ Shylock’s hat to Merrill Bank for supporting the Penobscot Theatre Company/Maine Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare-in-schools program. If you want them to come to your school, call (207) 947-6618.